Dance With A Stranger
Photo by Ted Soqui
[T]he taxi-dance hall can never be entirely satisfactory as a substitute for normal social life . . . In its catering to detached and lonely people, in its deliberate fostering of stimulation and excitement, in its opportunities for pseudo-romantic excitements, it may be seen as an epitome of certain phases of urban life.
Paul G. Cressey,
The Taxi-Dance Hall (1932)
Los Angeles D-Fenders
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Priscilla wears a green floral dress that falls to her knees. She looks about 27. Her hair and eyes are brown, and her lips are painted rose-petal red. She has a wholesome, decidedly 1940s appearance accentuated by her sturdy high heels, which she refers to as "my Ginger Rogers dance shoes."
"Guys say they like me because I look clean," she says as she leads me to the Club Flamingo dance floor. It is dimmer here, screened off from the rest of the hall by a rickety wooden trellis. A string of plastic palm-tree lights hangs from the ceiling. A Journey song blares. Couples sit on leatherette benches along the walls, talking, lightly stroking each others limbs, blowing into each others ears, sometimes kissing, or just holding hands and staring dreamily at nothing.
Out on the floor, a black man in a white fedora, white suit and crimson shirt stands with his arms raised above his shoulders. He is skinny and tall and undulating in a manner that brings to mind a snake that is somehow standing upright. Two blond Latinas, considerably shorter, reach up, clasping his fingers and spinning slowly on either side as they rub his chest with their free hands.
Most couples have gravitated toward the far end of the floor, as if it were tilted in that direction. A squat pillar with a sign reading "No Lewd Behavior" blocks the darkest corner from view, forming the ideal location for attempts at lewd behavior. Here the dancers grind tightly, or cease dancing altogether and simply lock bodies. I glimpse a tall Asian girl in a long silk dress slit up the side. She stands on one leg. Her other leg is wrapped around her partner, a silver fox in a leisure suit. She hangs from his neck as he pumps intently against her.
"We call those corner girls," Priscilla says. Her own style of dance draping her arms over my shoulders and swaying in a slow circle is less vigorously sensual, yet there is an inescapable erotic charge. I find myself noticing that her perfume is pleasant. I enjoy the way her hair occasionally brushes my neck. Its the sort of boy-meets-girl dream a junior-high dance might have offered had I not invariably spent them getting stoned in the parking lot with friends. As her hips slide in my hands, I feel the slip she wears beneath her dress. I shut my eyes and picture her wearing only the slip, and we are someplace else, anyplace but Club Flamingo.
The eroticism of the moment is, of course, highly odd. Not only is Priscilla a complete stranger, but when we finish dancing to a few songs, she clocks me out on a punch card, whispering, "Im not allowed to ask for a tip, but most customers feel comfortable tipping us at least 50 percent of the bill." The matron behind the counter tallies the minutes. I pay $12 to the house for half an hour and slip Priscilla a $5 plus $1.
She returns to the couch behind the waist-high fence in the viewing area and waits for her next customer. Still feeling the flush of our intimate encounter, I wave to her on my way out. Priscilla scarcely makes eye contact. She engages a swarthy man in a gold shirt in a direct stare. He rises, apparently taken by the sight of a clean-looking girl, and approaches her for a dance.
Sometimes I think
Ive found my hero,
But its a queer romance.
All that you need is a ticket.
Come on, big boy, ten cents a dance!
Fighters and sailors and bowlegged tailors
Can pay for their ticket and rent me.
"Ten Cents a Dance,"
Rodgers and Hart (1930)
In 1932, University of Chicago sociologist Paul G. Cressey published The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study in Commercialized Recreation and City Life, the summation of a five-year study of dance halls in Chicago. This form of entertainment had then, as now, a dubious reputation, but Cressey was more concerned with what he saw as the alienation, loneliness and moral ambiguity of urban life. He believed the taxi-dance hall expressed a fundamental truth about modern relations: A mobile, rapidly changing society produces cities inhabited by rootless, detached people who connect with each other primarily on the basis of mutual exploitation.
The postmodern reader, picking up Cresseys volume after a visit to Club Flamingo, or Club Paradise, or Dreamland, is struck by the convergence of his observations and ones own. In a passage that could describe the "corner girls" of the Flamingo, Cressey writes: "At times certain dancers seem to cease all semblance of motion over the floor, and while locked tightly together give themselves up to movements sensual in nature . . . These couples tend to segregate at one end of the hall, where they mill about in a compressed pack of wriggling, perspiring bodies."
Cressey occasionally seems a little too fascinated by displays of sensuality, but he was no sexual moralist. What interested him was not that the taxi dancer functioned similarly to the prostitute in terms of hiring out her body, but that she also seemed to be selling her affection, emotional intimacy and the illusion of romance. He believed this barter of simulated emotions between the sexes what he called the "pecuniary nexus displac[ing] personal relations" was both a cause and a symptom of the psychological disorganization and demoralization that typified the modern urban experience.
Cressey grows increasingly pessimistic as his arguments stretch across 300 pages. Everyone is alienated by the process. Loneliness increases. It becomes worse and worse, until we arrive in present-day L.A. 67 years beyond the scope of Cresseys tome and discover that the phenomenon he despaired of is bigger than ever. Los Angeles has more "hostess clubs," as taxi-dance halls are called today, than at any other time in its history. There are about 14 such establishments, according to club owners, most of them clustered downtown within half a mile of the Convention Center. They employ several hundred young women every night, and draw thousands of customers each week.
Are these clubs merely bizarre anachronisms, no more significant than porkpie hats sprouting on the heads of Westside hipsters, or do they bolster L.A.s claim to being the most alienated city in America? Why are thousands of men of all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds shelling out hundreds of dollars to dance and hold hands, when the same money could buy direct gratification from any number of the citys massage parlors and outcall hooker services? Is it really possible to buy emotional intimacy, to soothe big-city loneliness by dancing with a stranger?
I am on my second date with Priscilla. (Its not realistic to consider a paid encounter a date, but its impossible to avoid the natural expectations that arise when meeting an attractive woman under curious yet intimate circumstances. Some part of me wants to transform this abnormal experience into a "substitute for normal social life.") We are sitting on a black Naugahyde loveseat in the TV room at the Flamingo, a gloomy hall on the second floor of a crumbling warehouse structure at 12th and Figueroa downtown. There are a dozen loveseats like ours facing a grainy TV screen on which a violent movie is playing . . . A man is being handcuffed to a car parked on a train track. A speeding locomotive is about to hit the man, now inescapably chained to the door handle of the car . . . But no one is paying much attention. The couples scattered around us are tangled together, as they were on the benches along the edge of the dance floor. Few seem to be talking or moving much, and I dont look too hard. The dead stillness and rows of shabby, utilitarian couches bring to mind an airport waiting lounge where people have been waiting a long time.
Priscilla and I touch at the knees only. She talks at the rate of 40 cents per minute. I have learned these facts about her: She was into punk rock back in the 80s (meaning shes a few years older than she looks to be in the dimness of the club). She moved to L.A. from the South 10 years ago. No particular reason brought her here, though she likes the nature the desert, canyons and coast which she seldom sees because she drives a beater that barely makes it downtown, let alone out of the city. She takes classes at L.A. City College, and would like to transfer to a four-year university to study a science subject that doesnt entail too much math. She goes alone to Griffith Observatory once a week. She loves the view, the Foucault pendulum contemplation of which makes her feel profoundly aware of the movement of the Earth and the display of meteorites that have crashed through peoples homes. She finds the latter amusing, and it makes her laugh. Her favorite film is Once Upon a Time in the West; shes haunted by the recurring harmonica riff thats revealed at the end to be the song Charles Bronson played as a child when Henry Fonda hanged his older brother. She used to be a drug addict. She adores her father, an accountant, and has not told her parents that she has worked as a hostess dancer for three years.
"I thought Id walked into Twin Peaks," Priscilla says, describing her first impression of Club Flamingo. "But Im one of those people that when it says, Bubbly, energetic waitress wanted for sports bar, I know that I dont apply for that job. Theres a lot of freedom in this job. The hours are flexible. You make minimum wage plus tips, which can go anywhere from $50 to $200 a night. "If I dont like a guy, I clock him out. I dont have to talk to a guy if I dont want to. I used to cocktail at a shithole on Venice you think a waitress can decide not to serve a table because she doesnt like the customer?"
I remind Priscilla that on or about our fourth dance the night we met, she had begun to run her hand up and down my back. I ask her if such affection is normal with her customers, a question that causes her hand to recoil from my leg, where for several minutes her fingers had been tracing agreeable-feeling patterns above my knee.
"When Im dancing, I like to feel like Im at a gathering or a ball," she says, shifting away from me. "Ill touch a guy I mean like just his back, when were dancing because its kind of a nervous thing with my hands. If somebody is nice, it just seems natural. If somebodys really gross, and Im afraid theyre going to get a hard-on, then I dont touch them. There are things I wont do just to get a tip. I will not go and grind some freak in the corner.
"There are guys that come on real fast on the dance floor grabbing your hips, centering you, trying to aim, thrusting. You know? I cant handle the pseudo-rape scene. But 80 percent of these girls are supporting some guy or a kid at home. A lot of them are 18 and very naive. Some of them arent wound too tight. They totally make out with the guys, full-on French kiss, whatever. Some of these girls sing into the guys ears on the dance floor. Its really cheesy. Total corn. Ill see the girl in the bathroom, and shell say, This guy gives me a rush. And I just think, My God.
"But those girls you see in the corner, doing the old whatever, they will consistently make $200 or $300 a night in tips, which is more than I do. There are cameras in the club, there are security guards, and the cops come in here. If a girl is caught doing anything wrong, shes fired on the spot. But there are girls that will let guys feel them up. Or theyll put a jacket over the guys lap and jerk him off. Theres not a lot of that here, but it goes on."
Our conversation lasts an hour and a half and costs $36, plus a $20 tip.
Club Paradise, next to the Empire 900 Motel on Olympic Boulevard, strives for a 60s cocktail-lounge ambiance, with dark-red walls and swoopy velour lounge chairs, but it nevertheless remains a dump along the lines of the Flamingo. It operates under the same time-clock, punch-card system, but here all of the girls are Latino, as are about 80 percent of the men. Tonight many of the girls wear bikini tops and plastic hula skirts, since its Thursday, which is always "Hawaiiana Night." Others wear pretty white dresses suitable for Sunday confirmation, and a few are dressed in filmy, see-through things, such as the young lady in a green-chiffon genie outfit that provides more or less naked views of her white thong panties and brassiere.
The surprise at Club Paradise is not the show of pathetic Hawaiian costumes, nor the displays of flesh put on by some of the girls. The surprise is the dance floor. Club Flamingostyle grinders form a distinct minority. Most of the dancers here skillfully execute formal Latin dance moves. White skirts billow and hula skirts blur as the girls are gracefully flung about by men who seem to know what theyre doing. Even the klutzes young, skinny guys in plaid shirts and jeans who probably spend their days washing dishes or operating leaf blowers attempt the minimum of a box step, holding their partners stiffly, looking at their feet as they count.
I meet a 30-year-old white guy, Phil, by the (nonalcoholic) bar. He leans against the wall with his hands buried in his pockets throughout our entire conversation. Despite his boyish, blond features, he exudes a shifty vibe, perhaps because he never makes direct eye contact, as he continually looks over my shoulder at the girls wandering the room. He says hes a customer-service representative for an express-mail company and has been coming to hostess clubs for five years.
"Where else can you go and see hot chicks in miniskirts, and you clock em in, and two minutes later youve got your hand on her ass?" Phil asks. "You want to feel em up, you can. You go to a regular bar and they sock you for drinks. Chicks dont talk to you, anyway."
"What are the rules here?" I ask.
"Money rules, my friend," Phil says. "Here at the Paradise, the girls are nicer. At the Flamingo, therere some nasty girls. Real hotties. But theyll hustle you for everything youve got. Get this, I used to see this chick at the Flamingo. She had real big, big cans. There was a lips tattoo on one of her titties. She disappeared over a year ago. Then, a few months ago, my buddy and me were watching a porno two dudes doing the same chick. It was her, the chick from the Flamingo. She was in a porno!"
"How many girls have you dated from the clubs?"
"Twelve. I got most in the sack, but not all. The last one was number eight."
"Number eight?" I ask.
"Number eight. Its the number on her dance card, a girl from a club on Spring Street. Her names Eve. Shes hot. A couple of weeks ago I got her to my parents house I live with my mom and dad and got her into my bedroom. I stripped her and ate her out.
"The trick to getting some from a girl is she has to see you around a few times. If theres a girl you dig, clock her in three nights, and you can usually get her phone number and a date.
"Go to Dreamland if you want action. The girls dont hustle as much as the chicks at Flamingo, but do they put out? Heck, yeah. Ive seen a girl riding a guy at Dreamland. It was real dark in there. Used to be a big fern there you could hide behind, pretty much do anything you want with a girl."
Phil peels himself off the wall, signaling the end of the conversation. "I think Rubys here. Ive been waiting for her."
"Is she one of your girlfriends?"
"Nah, just a friend," Phil says. "But sometimes she lets me take her into the corner and suck on her titties."
I leave 20 minutes later. Phil still leans against the wall.
The parking-lot security guard grins when I tell him Im going to Dreamland.
"Looking for a girl?" he inquires in a conspiratorial whisper.
"Whats the best technique for getting one?" I ask.
"The girl wants you to dance, to tip with all your money. Maybe she gives you something, maybe not. It all depends on how much you want to pay for a piece of beef."
The metaphor seems appropriate when I am once again seated in a viewing gallery.
The nucleus of any downtown dance hall is the viewing gallery/selection area, wherein the girls are displayed on couches like market produce. Club Starlight, whose interior resembles a collision between a Chinese opium den and a 1970s disco, deviates from the norm with a totally separate girl chamber. It is a well-lit, glassed-in room, stocked with young dancers reading Cosmo and Allure, doing their nails or gossiping. Its a high-girlie scene, like that of a beauty parlor. Men are not allowed to enter. Instead, they point to the desired girl in the window, and a matron is sent in to retrieve her.
The girls-on-couch system is almost creepier especially in the clubs where there is no fence marking off the female territory because it so flagrantly violates social standards. We men sit at tables across from the girls. We stare. It is disconcerting to sit among strange men, all of us visibly sober (since dance halls arent licensed to serve liquor) and silent. We simply stare. In Dreamland I sit next to an Asian man in dungarees. His hair is long and disheveled. He pulls his chair up close to the couch of girls, to within three feet. He sits for two hours. Occasionally he yawns, holding his gaze like a cat.
Cressey observed the same phenomenon in 1932, noting that "ogling, in fact, seems here to be the chief occupation of the male."
Brazen public ogling that in normal social intercourse would be deemed disrespectful, hostile or predatory seems to be one of the chief perks of the $5 admission fee to any of L.A.s dance halls. (A high proportion of customers never seem to dance.) But it is also a critical element of the selection process. We are customers, and we have the right to inspect what we are paying for. We are, of course, buying beauty, but we are also purchasing friendliness (if we have had a rough day and wish to avoid conflict), sympathy (if we care to talk about our problems), romantic desirability (if we hope to fall in love) or sluttiness (if we are here basically to feel someone up and perhaps obtain a hand job or similar favors).
Indeed, the whole woman-as-meat world-view is one of the illusions being sold in dance halls that quickly falls apart. It holds up reasonably well so long as the girls are just being looked at from across the room. It crumbles the moment contact is established, not merely because many of the girls resist being treated that way, but because even those who encourage anonymous, impersonal groping are making economic calculations based on their own self-interest. They are trying to get a bigger tip by exploiting the weakness of the male fantasy. United on the dance floor, the woman feels for the mans wallet as he feels for her body.
The sign outside the Fenton Building on Spring Street is original, a two-story neon ribbon hanging on the north corner. It flashes "DANCING" in white, then blinks to red letters that spell "GIRLS." The club itself is reached through an interminable ride on a freight elevator. Inside Dreamland, the stage where swing bands once played has been plastered over, as have the cathedral windows, in order to create flat, even walls, uniformly painted matte black except for the holes where people have punched their fists through for reasons now lost to posterity. Unfortunately, the clubs famous "Anything Goes" Wednesday-night wet-T-shirt contest has been canceled this evening, apparently due to lack of interest. Most of the clientele mill around the pool tables, furiously smoking cigars and cigarettes beneath the "No Smoking" signs while conducting loud, polyglot conversations on cell phones.
The viewing area is nearly pitch-black. Overweight, 20-something Latinas sprawl on the couches. Excess flesh spills out from halter tops and underwear worn as outer garments. Sitting alone at one end of a couch is a green-eyed blond. Her legs are so long that her knees almost brush her chin.
Entering meat-consumer mode, I make my choice. Katya is 21 years old, from Orange County. She wears a stretch miniskirt and bare-midriff top. Her skirt is bunched up on one side, an appealing kind of sloppiness that carries over in her loose, hip-swaying gait. I think to myself that Phil, my romance adviser from Club Paradise, would be proud of my selection. Ive found a hottie.
Katya yanks me against her on the dance floor. The embrace is forceful and direct, like someone hugging a refrigerator in order to move it. "You look like my father," she says. "In pictures when he was young, before he got sick."
"Is he okay?"
One other couple dances. A stocky man in a gray suit perhaps 45, handsome and blond, a well-fed downtown businessman with a gold wedding band on his finger and a short, chunky Latina wearing a black negligee as a dress. The woman is older than the other dancers, somewhere between 35 and 45. Her partner has backed her against a mirrored wall. He pulls her negligee up and watches the reflection of his hands fondling her red-satin panties.
Katya glimpses the peepshow in the mirror and stiffens, as if with revulsion. "Im tired," she says. "Can we sit down?"
The Dreamland TV room offers the same airport ambiance as the Flamingos. Katya presses into the opposite end of the loveseat, pointedly avoiding physical contact, which is good, because she gestures frequently with her long arms. I wince several times, fearing shes going to hit me in the eye.
"My problem is focus." Katya bangs her knuckles on her forehead. "Up here, in my mind. Im diagnosed as ADD, attention deficit disorder?" She stares with dilated pupils. "I grew up on Ritalin, but it wasnt strong enough. I smoked crystal meth in high school. Now Im clean. My doctor put me on Dexedrine."
The poor girl is whacked out on speed.
"Im an actress. You know, Im in a workshop, and I do a performance about working here? This is it." Katya waves her hands as I duck. "We go in front of the class, and we mime to three songs. I start with Madonna, Live To Tell, because of her prostitute image, which is how I feel working here. Then I play People Are Strange. The Doors. Because thats how I feel about the world and people in here.
"I do my whole act like Im in my bedroom getting dressed for work. Im holding a teddy bear. Its a symbol for, like, growing up, but Im still like a child inside. The last song I play is the Police, Roxanne. When they sing, You dont have to put on the red light, I go into a rage. I tear the head off my teddy bear." She flings her wrist. "Then I rip his guts out and kick him across the stage."
Katyas recitation, which also includes dramatic monologues from her favorite film, Frances, costs more than $75. We spend two hours and 10 minutes together.
My attempt to select a girl merely as a piece of meat is an abysmal failure. Doing my best to find a girl who would "put out" in a Phil-my-romantic-adviser sense, I instead choose a dance partner who hates her job, seems conflicted by displays of sexual promiscuity, has a history of psychopharmacological treatment, clings desperately to unfulfilled dreams, is deeply angry, speaks openly of a father fixation and is just too tired to dance. In short, Katya is exactly the type of woman I invariably select when dating in the real world. No doubt, were I to make visits to Dreamland a habit, I would ask Katya to dance again. I might fall in love.
Veronica is the only dancer I encounter who leaps from the viewing couch and insists we dance. Coming from any other girl in a hostess club, an aggressive move like hers might feel like a hustle. But Veronica radiates joy.
She holds my hand over her head on the dance floor and spins. Her smile flashes each time her eyes lock onto mine. She is dark-skinned, with delicate features. She tells me she comes from Brazil. Her mother brought her to America when she was 8.
"My mother was difficult." She wraps both her arms around me, then springs away.
"How so?" I catch the dervish in my arms again.
"My mother whipped me. She burned me. She suffocated me. She knocked out two of my teeth. She scarred my back. And there was a little sexual abuse, too."
Veronica reels off this list of horrors in a cheerful singsong. She tells me she hopes to go to school someday to become a psychiatrist, so she can help other girls with backgrounds like her own.
Later, we go to the TV lounge. Veronica raises her skirt and shows me her bare ass, wanting to know if I like it. She admits shes not sure if she wants to go to medical school first or act in porn movies.
Veronica is 21, and her body looks perfect, but she is saving for plastic surgery. She has $2,100 stuffed in a sock hidden somewhere in her apartment that will cover breast implants.
"I will make myself look like a Barbie doll," she says. "Ill be perfect."
Sergeant Robert Veliz, of LAPD Central Vice Unit, sighs wearily throughout our interview. His beat is to investigate dance halls for lewd conduct and prostitution. I sense he is frustrated, and might have more on-the-job satisfaction if he could arrest more citizens.
The problem with dance halls, as Veliz outlines it, is that some customers do utilize the girls purely for sexual gratification. However, no one can be arrested unless caught committing a lewd act (such as direct hand-to-genital contact), or unless prostitution can be established (i.e., a customer pays a girl to perform a specific sexual act). If a man tips a dancer generously because she allows him to rub himself on her leg, and he climaxes as a byproduct of their dance, no crime can be established. In short, Sergeant Veliz cannot arrest citizens for what occurs in the privacy of their own pants. By all accounts, the used condoms I observe in the restrooms of various clubs are merely leftovers from lawfully obtained frottage.
"Who is most exploited in the clubs?" I ask Sergeant Veliz. "The customers or the hostesses?"
"Indirectly, the girls. Directly, the men," he says. He adds with a final sigh, "Those girls work the guys any which way they can."
Taxi-dance halls sprang up in the 1920s and 30s in major cities across America in response to a social-reform movement that had sought to wipe out prostitution. (The same reformist wave sweeping the land also ushered in Prohibition, the Hayes Commission and the federal governments first serious efforts to suppress the leafy scourge, marijuana.) The bordellos and red-light districts that had thrived openly following the postCivil War industrial boom were shut down by the late teens. In San Francisco, bar owners immediately began hiring unemployed prostitutes to work as hostesses. Their job was to lure customers and ply them with drinks while entertaining them on the dance floor. These establishments became known as "closed" dance halls, meaning they were closed to couples. Men only were invited; women were provided gratis.
At the same time, dance-instruction academies in New York and Chicago, teaching the latest fox-trot, Charleston and tango moves, began seeing a rise in patronage. The new breed of customer seemed less interested in footwork than in simply holding a woman. Many of these dance academies employed a uniform payment system in which students purchased tickets good for a single lesson that lasted the duration of one song. The female instructors frequently sat on chairs or couches in a gallery while waiting for students to show up with tickets.
It is believed that a Chicago-based Greek immigrant started the first taxi-dance hall after a trip to San Francisco, where he had been impressed by the success of closed dance halls. Returning to Chicago, he and his brothers borrowed the ticket-a-dance system as well as the girls-on-a-couch setup from the dance academies and opened the first hall dedicated exclusively to renting women as dance partners. (Thus the "taxi" in "taxi dancer.")
The idea spread to Los Angeles, and by the early 1930s there were at least four halls operating downtown. The dancers became known as "dime-a-dance girls" or "nickel hoppers." The halls continued to flourish after Prohibition ended in 1933, and 10 years later, at the height of the Second World War, two Los Angeles brothers, Ed and Ben Fenton, took over a club called Roseland Roof, at 833 S. Spring St. They soon eliminated the ticket-a-dance system and replaced it with the punch clock.
Roseland Roof never really shut its doors. Although taxi dancing died out in most American cities by the 1960s (when it became quaintly obsolete against the onslaught of the sexual revolution), the Fentons continued to run their hall until 1981. By this time, the swing bands they had employed were long since gone, and the dancers no longer wore formal gowns on Friday nights. Despite changing mores, the Fentons found a buyer for Roseland Roof when they retired, and it continues to operate today as Dreamland, occupying the same ballroom that had served Roseland Roof since it opened in 1933.
Edward Fenton, 91, stands at the window in his second-floor office in the Fenton Building. He shows me the corner on Spring Street where he sold newspapers in the early 20s, and then recalls the night his brother phoned to ask if he wanted to go in with him in purchasing Roseland Roof. Ben was an attorney who had been representing the clubs owner since 1938, and in "nineteen hundred and forty-three" the owner wanted to sell.
"Id never heard of a place like this," Fenton says. "I didnt have any idea how it was operated. I came here on a Thursday night to check the place out. I see a bunch of women and a bunch of customers, and I say, Whats this business all about? So my brother explained it to me, and I said, Not a bad idea. Hows the supply of girls? And he said, We dont have any problem with that."
I ask Fenton to describe the old days, the color, the spirit.
"Well . . . " He pauses, thinking a long time. "The customers wore neckties. They were well-dressed."
"Is there anything else you can think of?"
"The customer was lonely, thats the word. The club brought in lonesome people. They came here to meet with girls and carry on a secret romance."
"You mean they had affairs with the girls?"
"No. I didnt say that." Fenton appears momentarily annoyed with my complete ignorance. "The customer lived in a fantasy."
The smell of Lysol mingles with perfume in Club Fantasy, located in a basement on Third Street. It is smaller and cleaner than the other establishments. The walls are freshly painted. It has the feel of a community-center rec room in which most of the lights have blown out. Drinks (soft) are served in Styrofoam cups.
"There is a spiritualness about this place," says Ted, the manager, a third-generation Asian-American and former used-car dealer. He stands by the viewing gallery, surveying his club. "There is a whole conglomerate of emotion in here. It is more than it looks like.
"On the surface, behavior is based on a code of law. If the customer makes certain demands on the girl, he will go to jail. But there is also a psychological code. The customer is lonely for a woman. On a date, a girl might make him feel inadequate, like he isnt funny enough or interesting, or he doesnt earn enough money. He comes here to detox from reality.
"One-third of my customers are regulars. They enjoy themselves here every night, even though most are spending two to three times their hourly wages, and for what? So they can dance and talk to my girls."
Ted waives the two-drink minimum at the viewing tables and allows me to sit for free. An Asian man in a white tropical suit slips into the seat next to me. He is powerfully built and moves with athletic grace.
"If two strangers meet more than one time, it is destiny," the man in white says, tipping his Styrofoam cup. "I have seen you at Club Flamingo, no? Would you like a Coke or a Seven-Up?" He signals the waitress an almost imperceptible flutter of his hand. The gesture is pure class.
"You think this place is a dump, yes?" He reads my expression accurately. "You are not correct. It is never the location. It is the women. If they are beautiful, the club is beautiful."
My new friends name is Lee. He started coming to hostess clubs five years ago, two years after he arrived in America. He has worked as a bit player in martial-arts films. He continues acting in Asian films shot in L.A., and manages a restaurant in Beverly Hills.
"I first came to these clubs because I had a handicap," he says. "I am a foreigner. My English was very bad. I needed girls to talk to. I was so lonely." Lees excellent English is a testament to his years of study at various clubs. "In Asia, hostess clubs are very common. I know the idea offends many Americans. I tried going to regular clubs, but the girls in Los Angeles are game players. How can I approach them just to talk? The girl here talks to me. How can she refuse? She is making the money."
"Does the fact that you pay them make them prostitutes?" I ask.
"These girls are not prostitutes." Lee raises his voice, offended. "The problem is the customer." He leans toward me. "The majority of the customer is the geek. They are not attractive men. They are not fun to be with. Some of them try to treat the girl like a prostitute. But she is not.
"One time I had sex with a girl from a club. We danced until she finished work. I walked her to her car, and we had sex. I offered her money, and she threw it at me. I dated her for three months."
"And you never paid her?"
"I did, but for a reason. She had a boyfriend and a kid. If she saw me and didnt go to work at her club, how could she come home with no money? So I did pay her each time she came to my house. But she was not a prostitute. The money was an alibi."
Lee hastens to add, "That happened four years ago. But I keep coming back. Why? If I wanted physical satisfaction, I would go to a prostitute. Here it is mental.
"I am in love with a girl at one of the clubs. I met her two years ago. I see her every week two times, two hours each time.
"And you tip her?"
"Fifty dollars each time, plus $50 for the club. I spend $200 a week on her."
I add up two years of this courtship: $20,000.
Lee laughs. "And I never touch her. If I touch her, she gets mad."
"Have you ever seen her outside of the club?"
"I went to her house last week and cooked dinner for her."
"This was the first time you saw her at her home?"
"The second time. The first time was three months ago. I rented a truck to help her move into a new apartment."
At ten to 11, Lee leaves. He has an appointment to meet his "girlfriend" at her club. Once a week he brings her shrimp on dry ice from his restaurant.
Cressey writes: "Many of the romantically inclined patrons crave affection and feminine society to such an extent that they accept willingly the illusion of romance offered in the taxi-dance hall . . . [T]hey usually lead a rather detached life and sometimes give vent to city loneliness by an ardent and sincere wooing of the taxi-dancer . . . If receiving a good wage, they may even lavish gifts upon their favorite taxi-dancers."
Gift-giving stories abound at hostess clubs. Girls often speak of presents that have been lavished on them in the past. I wonder if these arent Pretty Woman fantasies dreamed up or exaggerated to make a depressing job more tolerable. But I meet several former hostess dancers a clothing designer (the wife of a friend), a Web-site designer, an advertising sales rep for a magazine who corroborate the tales of generosity I have heard.
"I worked at the Flamingo for three months," the advertising sales rep tells me during her lunch break at a mid-Wilshire restaurant. "It was right after I came to L.A. after graduating from college. I couldnt stand sitting on the couch like a cattle call, but I used to ask myself how would it compare to working at a place like Hooters. Hooters is predicated on beer and boobs. The Flamingo is predicated on romance, however twisted that sounds. There were lots of creeps there, but lots of guys go there to fall in love. People dont go to Hooters to fall in love.
"There was a guy who came in one night. I had never met him before. He had hair apnea meaning it grows from your head in clumps. He asked me to stand next to him while he played pool. After his game, he walked me to the window behind the pool table. We were just looking out the window at the city, and I said, Look at the blue sky light at night. He said I had reminded him of a poem. He opened up his wallet and handed me ten $100 bills. He never asked for anything from me."
Rumors of obsessed customers whose fixations have boiled over into violence also circulate freely in the clubs. Several of the girls mention an incident last spring, a fatal stabbing, or shooting. One tells me, definitely, it was a close friend of hers who was strangled in the parking lot, but it wasnt by a customer, it was her jealous boyfriend.
"The attackers name was Amolak Singh," Detective Russell Long of LAPD Central Homicide states in a telephone interview. "He was East Indian or Pakistani, although the man spoke fluent Spanish.
"The young woman was employed at the Las Palmas Club. At approximately 2:45 a.m. on April 8, Singh shot the young woman outside the Las Palmas Club when she got off work. She was wounded, but she did not die. She has recovered, as far as we know.
"An off-duty police officer was employed by the club as a security guard. He ran out when he heard the shots. He fired his gun and fatally shot the young womans attacker, Singh." (Indeed, the off-duty officer reportedly shot Singh eight times, the final two rounds going into Singhs body while he lay on the ground.)
Detective Long says Singh had had no contact with the young woman outside the club. But "he was definitely obsessed with the victim."
My last taxi dance is with a girl in plum-colored velour hot pants and a matching tube top. A silver ring on her index finger covers the first two joints; it flexes in the middle and is crafted to look like a miniature leg from a suit of armor. The girls name is Sarah, and she says shes an artist, but she cant draw, so she color-copies images she likes at Kinkos and makes collages. She says her collages are 6-by-10 feet; I imagine the Kinkos bills must be large.
It is a slow night, and the dance floor is nearly empty. Sarah squeezes next to me in a booth by the dance floor and puts her hand on my leg.
"Ive never been to one of these clubs," I tell her. "Is this a sex club?"
Sarahs hand freezes. "No. Gentlemen come here to enjoy themselves. A lot of people say these clubs are sleazy. Theyre not. These are nice girls."
"Why do people come here?"
"Gentlemen come here to be with attractive young girls. Its not a place to cheat. My customers say coming here is foreplay for going home to their wives. A lot of my customers are friends. We go back years."
"You mean you know all about them?" I ask. "Theyre friends like you call them up, ask them how their day went, go to the movies, visit them in the hospital if theyre sick?"
"No," she says, "I never see them outside the club. Theyre only friends here, when Im working."
"You ever date a guy from this place?"
"I would never date a guy from this place." Sarah removes her hand from my leg. "I have a boyfriend."
"Having a boyfriend must be tough."
"My boyfriend says he cant trust me, because I make my living touching people." She adds, "He always brings up my job when he makes a mistake."
"What kind of mistake?"
"Cheats on me."
Sarah looks incredibly sad, and I am sorry to be sitting with her, carrying on a lying conversation in order to elicit something personal from her. I tell her its time to clock out.
She clamps her hand on me. I look around the half-empty club. There are few prospects for Sarah tonight. I may be her only chance for a good tip.
"My boyfriend says his cheating is a Clinton thing."
Her armored finger crosses a boundary. Sarah places her hand in a position that in Sergeant Velizs book would probably constitute lewd conduct. She looks directly into my eyes.
"A Clinton thing. My boyfriend says some sex isnt cheating. Not even if someone gives you a blowjob. What do you think?"
In 1932, Cressey saw the modern city fragmenting into "a mosaic of contradictory moral worlds." He saw a future in which city dwellers, fundamentally detached from one another, move among these contradictory worlds, forming temporary alliances of mutual exploitation according to their needs.
The taxi-dance halls of today, which appear to be little more than seedy anachronisms, may in fact be the realization of that future not substitutes for normal social life, but what is normal today. Isnt the bartering of money for cheap fantasy what L.A. is all about?
I have my third date with Priscilla. I show up at her bungalow apartment on a Sunday afternoon.
"Oh God," she says, opening the door. "I totally forgot to call you. I have to go in to work in 10 minutes. Come in anyway."
Theres a computer on the kitchen table. Science textbooks are jumbled beside it. She boils water in a frying pan on the stove and makes me a cup of instant coffee.
"Sorry I dont have any milk." She stands at the mirror. Her hair is pinned up. She removes the pins and combs it out. "I always wear my hair down. I dont make my dance card if I wear it in a bun," she says.
We step outside into the courtyard. Unseen neighbors can be heard shouting through thin walls, a multicultural cacophony. Busted screens flap out of windows. Theres a broken lamppost. Someone has placed an empty can of beans where the light used to be.
"Im the only one that works in this courtyard," Priscilla says. "Im the only one that doesnt live in a one-bedroom with 10 other people.
"My neighbors call me the bitch. The lady who lives next door came up to me the other morning. Ill kick your ass, bitch, she said. You bore me, I said. She was totally confused."
Priscilla stops. She notices I have a new car.
"Is that yours?"
"We could drive someplace in your car." She thinks. "I love nature. We could drive someplace far out of the city. Ill call you." Her smile is clean and warm, and I never hear from her again.
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